Proton spin crisis

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List of unsolved problems in physics
How do the quarks and gluons carry the spin of protons?

The proton spin crisis (sometimes called the "proton spin puzzle") was a theoretical crisis precipitated by an experiment in 1987 which tried to detect spin configuration of the proton. The experiment was carried out by the European Muon Collaboration (EMC).[1]

Physicists expected that the quarks carry all the proton spin. However, not only was the total proton spin carried by quarks far smaller than 100%, these results were consistent with almost zero proton spin being carried by quarks. This surprising and puzzling result was termed the "proton spin crisis".[2] The problem is still considered one of the most important unsolved problems in physics.[citation needed]


A key question is how the nucleon's spin is distributed amongst its constituent partons (quarks and gluons). Physicists originally expected that quarks carry all of the nucleon spin.

According to quantum chromodynamics, the proton is built from two up and one down quark, gluons and possibly additional pairs of quark and anti-quark.[3] The ruling assumption was that since the proton is stable, then it exists in the lowest possible energy level. Therefore, it was expected that the quark's wave function is the spherically symmetric s-wave with no spatial contribution to angular momentum. The proton is, like each of its quarks, a spin-1/2 particle. Therefore, it was assumed that two of the quarks have opposite spins and the spin of the third quark is parallel to the proton spin.

The experiment[edit]

In this EMC experiment, a quark of a polarized proton target was hit by a polarized muon beam, and the quark's instantaneous spin was measured. In a polarized proton target, all the protons' spin take the same direction, and therefore it was expected that the spin of two out of the three quarks cancels out and the spin of the third quark is polarized in the direction of the proton's spin. Thus, the sum of the quarks' spin was expected to be equal to the proton's spin.

However, it was found in this EMC experiment that the number of quarks with spin in the proton's spin direction was almost the same as the number of quarks whose spin was in the opposite direction. This is the proton spin crisis. Similar results have been obtained in later experiments.[4]

Recent work[edit]

A 2008 work shows that more than half of the spin of the proton stems from the motion of its quarks, and the missing spin is produced by the quarks' spatial angular momentum.[5] This work uses relativistic effects together with other QCD properties and explains how they boil down to an overall spatial angular momentum that is consistent with the experimental data.


  1. ^ Ashman, J.; et al. (EMC Collaboration) (1988). "A measurement of the spin asymmetry and determination of the structure function g1 in deep inelastic muon-proton scattering". Physics Letters B 206 (2): 364. Bibcode:1988PhLB..206..364A. doi:10.1016/0370-2693(88)91523-7. 
  2. ^ Londergan, J. T. (2009). "Nucleon Resonances and Quark Structure". International Journal of Modern Physics E 18 (5–6): 1135. arXiv:0907.3431. Bibcode:2009IJMPE..18.1135L. doi:10.1142/S0218301309013415. 
  3. ^ Halzen, F.; Martin, A. D. (1984). Quarks and Leptons: An Introductory Course in Modern Particle Physics. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-88741-6. 
  4. ^ Jaffe, R. (1995). "Where does the proton really get its spin?". Physics Today 48 (9): 24–30. Bibcode:1995PhT....48i..24J. doi:10.1063/1.881473. 
  5. ^ Thomas, A. (2008). "Interplay of Spin and Orbital Angular Momentum in the Proton". Physical Review Letters 101 (10): 102003. arXiv:0803.2775. Bibcode:2008PhRvL.101j2003T. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.101.102003. 

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